Ah, heaven, with its pearly gates, its streets paved with gold and flanked by doughnut trees, fed with rivers of butterscotch and tended by gardener angels. Countless Christians over many generations have anticipated crossing over into this ethereal realm after drawing that last breath. Many American Christians even expect an early check-in to the heavenly resort via ‘The Rapture’ (the extra-orthodox eschatological plot device where Jesus wraps his legs round the celestial trapeze, swinging down in a near-earth arc, grabbing all true Christians by the wrists and swinging them into the clouds for a super-terrestrial meet cute).
A Heavenly Fixation?
Actually, for quite a while now, Christians have spent copious amounts of time thinking, talking, preaching and downright obsessing about heaven. We’ve made securing in advance that post-mortem ticket to an afterlife of bliss the entire purpose of life. Sure, we want to do our bit, adding a few extra names to the heavenly passenger manifest by summoning the courage to evangelise. That should earn a wink and a double-barrel, Fonzie-style thumbs up from Jesus himself, and might mean the difference between a mansion with full-service on-demand TV and busking on the golden streets to afford basic cable. But like putting on your own oxygen mask before assisting others in the event of depressurisation, inviting others on the journey is a secondary enterprise to finalising your own itinerary.
Yet for all the time we spend fixating on a disembodied existence in heaven, one who didn’t have much to say about it was Jesus. When he talked about heaven, he (like the great majority of Jews in his day) thought of it as God’s space, the unseen realm that God inhabits and from which God interacts with the world. And it wasn’t far off in outer space (that’s an 18th-century idea, not a 1st-century one), but near enough to reach out and touch. Nor was it, in Jesus’ mind, where the master switches for earthquakes, tidal waves, famine and pestilence were kept.
Heaven On Earth
What Jesus did fixate on was the Kingdom of God – and the Kingdom of God wasn’t about going to heaven (yes, in Matthew, the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ substitutes for the ‘Kingdom of God’, but they’re simply synonymous terms). On the contrary, it was about seeing heaven joined to earth, so that the order of heaven, the benevolent reign of God, would come in fullness to this world. This was the common view of Jesus and many of his contemporaries, reflected in his prayer:
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Matthew 6:10, NRSV
Jesus also viewed his teaching, healing and other works of power as the signs of the Kingdom advancing in the present hour, declaring that God’s Kingdom had come near (Matthew 3:2, Mark, 1:15, Luke 10:9). Moreover, he insisted that his followers also work for the advance of the Kingdom, seeking that first before anything else (Matthew 6:33, Luke 12:31). That’s where the ‘evangelising’ (from the Greek εὐαγγελίζω: ‘I proclaim good news’) comes in, sharing the truly good news that the Kingdom of God is available to anyone, in the present, and inviting hearers to participate in growing that kingdom.
Now you might ask, what’s the difference? What’s the real problem with focusing on the security of an afterlife spent in heaven? Well, it’s a bit like getting a new job and giving your current employer notice. You have to finish out your two weeks, but mentally, you’re already gone. Yeah, you’re still stacking those beef patties and squeezing special sauce on those Big Macs, but without any passion.
Something similar can happen to us when we treat heaven as the primary objective of our lives: we can put aside any effort to engage with this world and its people. We put so much emphasis on the future, we forget what’s happening in the present moment.
But what if we took seriously what Jesus said about the coming of the Kingdom of God to earth, about its accessibility here and now? Maybe we would work more deliberately to alleviate poverty and disease, to speak out against prejudice and division, to act as peacemakers.
Certainly, there’s important comfort in anticipating the welcoming arms of God at the end of our days. Yet, if we’re following Jesus’ example, we should aim to see more of heaven while we’re still breathing. The doughnut trees will just have to wait.
The Kingdom of God is the key focus of scripture and the message of Jesus. That’s why I’ll be writing exclusively about the Kingdom for the next year. You can view all of the the pieces in the series on this page.
- Feature Image: My artist’s impression of ‘The Rapture’, created with a little Pages surgery from: (www.flashkit.com/imagesvr_ce/flashkit/gallery/Religion/Jesus_wi-Brian_E-5041/Jesus_wi-Brian_E-5041.png)
- Fonzie Thumbs-Up (http://insideechenrysbrain.typepad.com/.a/6a00e009983955883301901e602655970b-pi)
- ‘I Quit’ (hrpeople.monster.com/nfs/hrpeople/attachment_images/0007/6203/I_Quit_PostIt_380_crop380w.jpg?1276533954)